Eurovision: Wolves, witches and rapping Ukrainians
Eccentricity rules at world's longest-lived and most-watched singing contest
TURIN, Italy: Will it be Norway's banana-eating wolves, France's coven of witches or Britain's space man?
Or maybe a Greek with a death wish, a slinky Lithuanian chanteuse with a jet-black bowl cut or a Serbian germaphobe?
The line-up for Saturday's grand finale of the Eurovision Song Contest is typically outlandish, but with the roars of war on the continent's eastern front, a hiphop lullaby from Ukraine is the song to beat.
Riding a wave of public support following Russia's invasion, Kalush Orchestra's tribute to the motherland is the bookmakers' favourite to triumph at the world's biggest live music event, watched by tens of millions of people.
"If we win Eurovision, we will have a lot of hope that we'll win the war," said Ukrainian Maria Lembak, 40, holding the country's large yellow and blue flag as she counter-protested at a small pro-Russia rally in central Turin on the eve of the final.
Kitschy and quirky, Eurovision embraces the eccentric and the contest's 66th edition is no exception, with its national competitors exemplifying the contest's central charm — anything goes.
That's good news for Norway, whose Subwoolfer performs Give that Wolf a Banana dressed in cartoonish yellow wolf masks with long white fangs and France's Alvan & Ahez, whose Fulenn sung in Breton celebrates nocturnal dancing with the devil.
And not to be outdone is Serbia's Konstrakta, whose meticulous onstage hand-scrubbing while reflecting on Meghan Markle's well-hydrated hair is seen as a subtle critique of national healthcare in In Corpore Sano.
A dress rehearsal Friday went off with some fits and starts over technical issues, including during Swede Cornelia Jakobs' performance of Hold Me Closer. But that didn't put a damper on fans' enthusiasm.
"Only at Eurovision do people celebrate bananas, heartbreaks, and wash their hands in one and the same show," Swedish fan Martina Fries told AFP Saturday.
"Eurovision is a way to show that different countries can celebrate peacefully together."
Back at the front
The joy of Eurovision is in the camp and the clowning, although the nearly three-month war in Ukraine hangs heavily over festivities.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on Feb 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
Ukraine's Kalush Orchestra is heavily tipped for victory amid an outpouring of empathy in Europe for the country's plight — as well as genuine appreciation for their unique song, Stefania.
Written before the war, the song mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music with an invigorating hiphop beat and nostalgic lyrics recalling the motherland.
The band has pulled off a crowd-pleasing cultural mashup with the sound of obscure flute-like folk instruments and the sight of embroidered ethnic dress onstage added to breakdancing and rapping.
Representing Ukraine at Eurovision while loved ones suffer back home has been tough, frontman Oleh Psiuk told AFP.
"We have one band member who joined the territorial defence of Kyiv on the third day of the war," and who remains at the front, Psiuk said.
"We are very worried about him, and we hope to see him safe once we are back."
Other more sober offerings include Greece's Die Together by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and Brividi (Shivers), a duet from Italy's Mahmood and Blanco.
Italy hopes the gay-themed love song will bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year's Zitti e Buoni (Shut up and Behave) from the high-octane glam rockers Maneskin, who will perform at Saturday's finale.
After a quarter century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain hopes it has found a winner in Space Man, whose stratospherically high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Sam Ryder has made it a serious contender.
On the fashion front, Lithuania's Monika Liu has generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant Sentimentai.
Meanwhile, Sheldon Riley of Australia — one of Eurovision's few non-European entries — has sung his personal self-affirmation ballad Not the Same through a sparkling face veil laden with crystals.
And since no Eurovision is complete without a smattering of gyrating and undulating bodies onstage, Spain's Chanel comes to the rescue with SloMo and its memorable "booty hypnotic" refrain.
Votes for Eurovision's winner are cast by music industry professionals and the public from each country, with votes for one's home nation not allowed.